A call to the Marysville’s flight service station made things clear. “Three statute miles visibility in smoke, indefinite ceiling, sky obscured.” No wonder. Smoke. I should have smelled it. The briefer’s parting shot said it all: “If you’re coming in, you’d better hurry up.”
OK, I checked the weather. “Surely that should make Richard a little happy,” I thought. “What next? Seek help.”
As soon as I dialed up Sacramento approach, I could tell I wasn’t the only one caught off guard. The chatter was nonstop. At the first chance to break in, I requested vectors to Yuba County (MYV). I felt apprehensive when the controller issued a squawk code. My “negative transponder” response quickly brought this option to an end. It was common for small aircraft not to have a transponder in the late ’70s.
“So, no vectors. What now, Richard?” Our magnetic course was about 145 degrees. We were inbound on about the 325-degree MYV radial. As long as I was on course, there wouldn’t be a problem, but I was beginning to rely more and more on the VOR, and I knew it could not be trusted.
That was it. I had to do it. Even though we had to be within about 20 to 25 miles of Marysville, I decided to turn back toward CIC. The normally prominent Sutter Buttes that are located 14 miles west of MYV and go up to 2,300 feet msl were nowhere in sight, and we were at 1,500 feet msl. I was not ready to bet our lives on my exact position. I did not want this flight to turn into an Aftermath piece by Peter Garrison.
We turned toward the Chico VOR. This took us away from the buttes. We would be there in about 15 to 20 minutes. Our magnetic course was now about 330 degrees. Initially, I was convinced that, as we headed north, we would eventually pop out and be in the clear. But I realized the wind out of the south was funneling smoke farther up the valley. This meant Chico could now be “smoked in” as well.
Before I had a chance to contact Chico, my friend yelled out (we had no headsets), “There’s an airport!” After consulting the sectional, I determined that we’d reached a private field about 4.4 miles south of Chico called Ranchero CL56.
At that point I decided that “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” We were landing at Ranchero. I maneuvered for downwind while descending to pattern altitude. I set up for a normal approach and landing. Carburetor heat, power back and 10 degrees of flaps abeam the end of the runway. Wait a minute. Something wasn’t right. I wasn’t at 45 degrees to the runway yet and I was losing sight of the field. Turning base. More flaps out. Wow, we were really high. “Get the rest of the flaps out. Still way too high. Try slipping. This is not working. Go around.”
My initial impression was that it was far shorter than the 6,000 feet I was used to at Yuba County. What I didn’t pick up on the sectional was that it was only 2,100 feet.
Unfortunately, I did the second pattern exactly how I did the first, which resulted in another go-round. As we climbed out following the second go-around, it dawned on me. A normal approach and landing technique was not working because these were not normal conditions. I had to adjust my technique to match the conditions.
Since I kept ending up too high, I limited my pattern altitude to 600 feet agl. I reduced power and got 10 degrees of flaps by midfield and began the descent shortly thereafter. I got full flaps in early and used a short-field technique. The landing was uneventful.
When we finally shut down, I looked across the field. I couldn’t believe we’d been flying in this. It looked worse on the ground.
So what did an 80-something-hour pilot learn from this? I realized that passing up decent landing spots with the hope of things improving down the road was a bad choice. Sometimes, the best bet is to cut your losses, land where the landing is good and figure things out once you’re safely on the ground.